Lionel Messi scored two early goals to send Barcelona into the Champions League semifinals for the first time in four seasons with a comfortable 3-0 win over Manchester United on Tuesday.
After Barcelona withstood some early pressure from United, Messi ended any hopes of a comeback for the Premier League side as the hosts advanced 4-0 on aggregate.
Messi opened the scoring with a brilliant solo effort in the 16th minute after he won possession of the ball, ghosted past a defender, and curled a shot into the far corner.
The second came just four minutes later, although Messi was helped by a massive error by David de Gea that time. The Argentina forward only managed a tame shot on goal but the Spain goalkeeper let it slip underneath him and into the net.
Philippe Coutinho added a third goal with a superb curling strike from long range in the 61st to cap arguably the best performance by the former Liverpool player since joining Barcelona just over a year ago.
“The image (we gave) was spectacular. This is who we are,” Messi said. “I was fortunate the first went in, I struck it hard and just inside the post. I needed a little more luck on the second. The important thing is that we achieved our goal. We have taken one more step (to the title).”
Twenty years ago at Barcelona’s stadium, United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer completed one of the most memorable comebacks in soccer history when he scored the English team’s second injury-time goal to stun Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final.
But after a promising start when Marcus Rashford hit the crossbar, Messi showed that sentimental memories mean very little when he is playing at his best.
“Messi and Cristiano (Ronaldo) have been the best players in the world for the past decade,” Solskjaer said. “And he showed why we think that and why he has won so many titles. If you give him space and timing around the goal he will create chances and score.”
Ronaldo will not be joining Messi in Europe’s final four.
Ajax stunned Ronaldo’s Juventus 2-1 to progress to the semifinals in Tuesday’s other match. Donny van de Beek canceled out Ronaldo’s opener before Matthijs de Ligt took the winner to let the Dutch visitors advance 3-2 overall.
The Barcelona crowd, which for so long viewed Ronaldo as its main nemesis when he was with Real Madrid, celebrated the Ajax goals when they were announced on the video monitor.
In Barcelona’s 1-0 first-leg win at Old Trafford, Messi had his nose bloodied by the arm of Chris Smalling in a collision that Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde compared to being “run over by a truck.”
Messi was back in full force a week later. Far from shying away from contact with rivals, he initiated it with his defense to set an example for his teammates when they were caught off-guard after kickoff.
Rashford almost caught Barcelona slacking on defense in the first minute when Paul Pogba met his run with a through ball, only for Rashford’s rising shot to graze the bar.
After Rashford threatened again, Messi outmuscled Ashley Young to win the ball near the right touchline. He then brought the home crowd to its feet as he poked the ball through the legs of Fred, sped along the edge of the box, and drove a left-footed strike around a diving De Gea.
Messi got his double soon with more than a little help from De Gea.
“We started well in the first 15 minutes and I thought, ‘We’ve got something here,'” Solskjaer said. “But then they scored twice in four minutes. … You could see the difference of the teams tonight. The quality of their finishing was absolutely outstanding.”
Messi went close to setting up a third goal just before halftime. He made Phil Jones dizzy by changing the direction of his dribble three times. He then played Jordi Alba wide, for the left back to cross the ball to Sergi Roberto arriving at the far post. De Gea made a superb save to block his point-blank effort on the line.
Messi also cued the attack that ended in Coutinho’s goal by playing a long ball down the left to Alba, who knocked it back to the Brazil midfielder to beat De Gea from distance.
The goals ended Messi’s bizarre scoring drought in Champions League quarterfinals that had reached 12 matches dating back to 2013.
They took his tournament-leading tally to 10 this season. In total he has 45 goals in 42 games through all competitions.